Richmond parents suspect election year lies behind seismic pledges

Trustees have interpreted a letter from local BC Liberal MLAs as a sign that no schools will close. Meanwhile the Ministry of Education is still open to "amalgamating" schools.

Tuesday evening, three Richmond schools were spared from closure after the Board of Education voted unanimously to terminate a process that would have potentially seen the doors of McKay, Dixon and Woodward elementary schools shut next year.

Nearly 300 anxious parents and students packed an auditorium at Richmond secondary school to witness the vote that seemed like all but a done deal even before board chair Debbie Tablotney called to order the special meeting.

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It was an “easy decision,” said trustee Ken Hamaguchi.

One by one, with validating cheers from the audience, trustees announced they would vote to end the now 15-month long school closures process that has taken up significant resources at the Richmond School District.

The trustees cited, as a reason to end the closure process, a recent letter to the editor of the Richmond News from Liberal MLAs Linda Reid, John Yap and Teresa Wat that claims the provincial government is now going to “ensure all high-risk schools are upgraded or replaced.”

The government has $560 million in its three-year capital plan to put toward seismic upgrade projects in B.C., wrote the MLAs. 

“The money is available to all high-risk schools and the pace of projects is largely dependent on how quickly and efficiently local school boards map out their priorities and deliver on upgrades,” they wrote.

“We want to ensure our constituents that funding is available for all high-risk schools in B.C., which include those in Richmond.”

These were the specific statements Tablotney said was the “golden ticket” to keep schools open, as she held up a copy of the Oct. 5 edition of the News, to the delight of parents.

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Prior to this, trustees maintained they had been directed to bring the district up to a 95 per cent utilization rate (from 85 per cent) to show the Ministry of Education district facilities were operating efficiently and thus eligible for seismic upgrades.

“When I saw the letter, I was a bit shocked,” said Tablotney, adding that the information in the letter was news to her.

“We interpret it as funding is there for all schools,” Tablotney told the News Thursday.

So, is that the end to the closures? It remains open to interpretation. 

When asked by the News to clarify various comments made in the letter, Yap, Reid and Wat all declined, instead deferring questions to the ministry, which provided written statements via email from Education Minister Mike Bernier.

The minister stated that its usual course of action will remain: “We have always said we are committed to dealing with all high-risk seismic schools left in the province beyond the 155 already complete,” said Bernier.

“We will accomplish this with the same approaches used by school districts in the past — upgrading existing schools, building replacement schools, and amalgamating schools in areas with declining enrolment so a seismically-safe school is the right size,” said Bernier.

Meanwhile, as for the $560 million, it will be spread across the entire province to go toward the 118 schools on a waiting list for seismic upgrades, on a case-by-case basis, which will include assessments of utilization/capacity.

When asked when Richmond schools will be upgraded, the ministry replied: “The target, outside of Vancouver, is to [seismically upgrade] all high-risk schools by 2025. 

“There is funding to ensure all high-risk schools are dealt with over that time — whether it is a replacement, an upgrade, or consolidation project.”

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Notably, the three schools (partial rebuilds for Tomsett and Ferris and a full rebuild for Steves) the district has submitted for upgrades this year, in its capital plan, will cost upwards of $41 million. Completion dates are set for 2020 or 2021.

The Richmond district’s Director of Facilities and Planning, Clive Mason, said “one can extrapolate” as to the total costs of retrofitting or rebuilding all of the 25 Richmond schools in need of seismic work.

Mason said the district has identified 21 of its 25 high-risk schools as eligible for immediate funding from the ministry.

The initial estimated cost of seismic and building envelope remediation for those 21 schools is about $218 million.

But Mason warned that those costs are likely to be higher. That’s because the seismic studies of each school have only been “rapid assessments,” which tend to be “conservative.”

“The level of seismic risk is increasing with more detailed reviews of the schools and so are the budgets,” said Mason.

Notably, rapid assessments didn’t factor in potential liquefaction of Richmond’s soft flood plain soils, in the event of a major earthquake.

Mason describes the majority of Richmond’s at-risk schools as frail, considering many load bearing walls have large windows in them and the structures are built like warehouses.

“Conceptually, you can see from the design of some of these buildings how there can be problems.”

As it stands, 11 of B.C.’s 42 H1-rated (highest risk of “widespread damage”) schools are in Richmond. 

Mason said the district will need help to get all the schools rebuilt or fixed by 2025. 

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Administratively, the process has been described by district secretary treasurer Mark de Mello as a “logistical nightmare,” and one that can realistically only see up to five schools reconstructed during one year (students will be shuffled between schools during construction). 

It’s unclear, said Mason, how all 25 schools can be fixed by 2025, however the ministry has offered to set up a project office in Richmond to deal with the backlog.

How did it come to this point?

Richmond parent Kim Nowitsky blames the delays on the existing BC Liberal government (in 2005 the government stated all seismic upgrades would be done by 2020). 

Politics are at play, said Nowitsky.

“Why, after seven years of requests for upgrades from our school board, did the ministry decide to act? Oh, of course, it’s an election year,” said Nowitsky, referring to the last time a Richmond school was approved for upgrades.

Nowitsky said, in light of the ongoing delays, she’s aware the letter to the editor is just paper at the moment.

“If we leave it as is, they won’t follow through, which means we have to follow through,” she said.

Tablotney said that’s what she’s banking on, too.

Also at play in the trustees’ decision, said Tablotney, was a large groundswell of support from parents and Richmondites to keep the schools open.

Through the process, a dedicated group of parents, including Nowitsky, formed Richmond Schools Stand United (RSSU) to communicate their message to the community.

“I’m very relieved [the board] made the right decision,” said Nowitsky.

“They couldn’t move forward responsibly knowing the process was flawed.”

Nowitsky and RSSU parents had written numerous letters to the News, the district and the MLAs to raise concerns about seismic upgrades, as well as the provincial politicians’ perceived lack of presence at numerous public consultations and board meetings, and two rallies. 

They frequently used the Twitter hashtag #WheresJohnYap.

On Tuesday, trustees and parents said their “fight” wasn’t over. They also put a target on education funding.

“I’d be happy with seismic funding and better funding overall for the public school system in B.C.,” said Nowitsky.

Echoing Nowitsky’s sentiments were several trustees.

Trustee Dr. Eric Yung reminded the crowd that the district is operating on a $2 million deficit after eating into a $9.8 million reserve fund.

“That is a limited-term solution,” said Yung.

Trustee Sandra Nixon called on the province to reverse “systemic, chronic underfunding of public education.”

Trustee Donna Sargent told the crowd that, in her 14 years as a trustee, she has never not had to make cuts to the budget.

“We need to advocate for stable funding, as well as safe schools,” said Tablotney.

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